Desperately Seeking The Location of Gaugamela Battlefield

by Major Stephen W. Richey
United States Army, Retired

© 2014 Stephen W. Richey   All rights reserved.

To state my position at the outset, I here declare my conclusion that the Battle of Gaugamela, whose precise location has been debated by scholars for decades, took place in the fifty or so square kilometers surrounding map grid coordinate 38S LE 610550, Military Grid Reference System (MGRS), which converts to (36° 62′ 46″ North, 43º 44′ 74″ East). This location is open rural countryside about 43 kilometers northeast of downtown Mosul, Iraq. The center of this location is a short distance southeast of the present-day village of Mahad. What follows is my analysis that led to my conclusion.

The Battle of Gaugamela is one of the most tremendous and most important battles of all history. The battle was fought on or about October 1, 331 B.C., in what is now northern Iraq. In this battle, a small army of free Greek warriors, commanded by Alexander the Great, and representing Western Civilization, destroyed a huge slave horde army commanded by King Darius III of Persia, representing Middle Eastern Civilization. As a result of the battle, Greek Civilization, which was the beginning of Western Civilization, held sway over the Middle East for several generations.

On the accompanying maps, the Greeks are shown in blue and the Persians are shown in red.

It is impossible to identify the location of Gaugamela battlefield with perfect precision or certainty after the passage of almost 2,500 years. The best we can do is consult the writings of ancient authors such as Arrian and try to locate on a modern map a piece of ground that fits what we know about how the battle played out.

Scholars in our own period in history are divided into two rival camps in their estimates of the battlefield’s general location. One camp, whose main advocate was Aurel Stein, thinks the battle was fought somewhere in the plain around the village of Keramlais about 22 kilometers east of what is now the city of Mosul1. The other camp, whose main advocate was E. W. Marsden, thinks the battle was fought some distance northeast of Mosul—somewhere in the plain that lies north of Jabal Maqlub Mountain and west of the Gomel River.2 The site advocated by Marsden lies about 36 kilometers north of the site advocated by Stein.

But saying the battle took place “somewhere” on the plain around Keramlais village or “somewhere” on the plain north of Jabal Maqlub and west of the Gomel River still does not pinpoint for us exactly where the Greeks and Persians were standing when they crossed spears and swords. To refine our estimate of the battlefield’s location, we need to apply what we know about the battle to the map.

We know that:

  1. Darius deployed his army in a defensive position facing to the west to receive the attack of Alexander who was advancing from west to east.
  2. Alexander advanced from west to east to attack Darius where Darius stood with his army.
  3. Darius’ army consisted of about 250,000 men and a proportional number of horses.3 In keeping with the fighting methods of the time, an army of that size would have occupied a frontage of about six kilometers from one end of the army to the other. Darius’ soldiers thus stood in lines about six kilometers long running from north to south and facing to the west.
  4. Darius positioned his army on a plain that was as flat as a billiard table. Rough ground leading up to hills lay just north of the northern end of Darius’ line and just south of the southern end of Darius’ line.
  5. About three to four miles west of Darius’ line, a long, low ridge ran from north to south, parallel to, and in front of, Darius’ line. Thus, this ridge hid Darius and Alexander from each other’s view as Alexander advanced from west to east to attack Darius. When Alexander crested this ridge, he made his first eye contact with Darius’ army lying three to four miles to the east, its lines running for about six kilometers from north to south across the plain.4

So—to deduce the precise location of the Gaugamela battlefield, we need to find a billiard-table-flat plain of a little more than six kilometers breadth with rough ground rising to hills to the north and south. And, we must find a long, low ridge running from north to south three to four miles west of, and parallel to, where Darius would have deployed his lines of westward-facing soldiers.

We must look at the map and apply the above criteria twice, once for Stein’s favored location near Keramlais village, and once for Marsden’s favored location north of Jabal Maqlub and west of the Gomel River. For Stein’s location, the best fit to the map places the center of Darius’ line at map grid coordinate 38S LE 610190 MGRS (36º 30′ 43″ North, 43º 44′ 08″ East). For Marsden’s location, the best fit to the map places the center of Darius’ line at map grid coordinate 38S LE 610550 MGRS (36º 62′ 46″ North, 43º 44′ 74″ East).

As stated before, Marsden’s general location lies well to the north of Stein’s general location and Stein’s location well to the south of Marsden’s. It becomes instantly obvious that the northern location is preferable to the southern one. The southern location lacks a distinct north-south running ridge three to four miles west of Darius’ presumed line while the northern location has precisely such a ridge in precisely the right place.

Another factor favors the northern location over the southern one. The name “Gaugamela” is generally thought to be linguistically related to the name “Tel Gomel.” Tel Gomel translates to English as “Camel Hill,” suggesting a hill resembling a camel’s hump. The Gomel River runs from north to south about two kilometers to the east of the northern battlefield location. Hill 371 and Hill 372, which are on the banks of the Gomel River within sight of the battlefield, are both good candidates to be “Camel Hump Hill.”

Another compelling reason to favor the northern location over the southern one comes from what we know of how the opposing armies maneuvered in the days before the battle. At the beginning of the maneuvers that led to the Battle of Gaugamela, Darius was with his army at Babylon on the lower Euphrates River while Alexander was far to the northwest at Thapsacus on the upper Euphrates. Darius assumed that Alexander would advance southeast, down the length of the Euphrates, on the direct route to Babylon. Darius held the bulk of his army at Babylon in accordance with his assumption about what Alexander would do. But Alexander surprised Darius by crossing to the east bank of the Euphrates at Thapsacus and then marching northeast to cross the upper Tigris River at one of four fords. The southern-most of these four fords was at present-day Mosul with the remaining three spread out along the upper Tigris for many miles northwest of Mosul. Darius, recovering from his surprise, hastened north from Babylon with his army to contest Alexander’s crossing of the Tigris. The most difficult, the most dangerous, the potentially most disastrous operation an army can attempt, is to cross a major river with an enemy army ready and waiting on the far bank. For this reason, Alexander was desperate to cross the Tigris before Darius could reach his chosen crossing point and Darius was equally desperate to reach Alexander’s crossing point before Alexander. Both armies were essentially racing each other to the fords across the upper Tigris. We do not know for certain where Alexander crossed the Tigris. But, looking at a map, it becomes obvious that the farther north Alexander crossed the Tigris, the shorter would be his march from Thapsacus to his crossing point—and the longer would be Darius’ march from Babylon to Alexander’s crossing point. Therefore, the obvious deduction is that Alexander chose to cross the Tigris at a point that was more northerly than southerly. The record of history is that Alexander successfully crossed the Tigris without opposition and that Darius was not able to intercept Alexander until Alexander had advanced some distance beyond the Tigris—directly resulting in the Battle of Gaugamela. All the foregoing makes it apparent that the northern battlefield location advocated by Marsden is more likely to be correct than the southern battlefield location advocated by Stein.5

Because of all the above, I here declare my conclusion that the Battle of Gaugamela took place in the fifty or so square kilometers surrounding grid coordinate 38S LE 610550 MGRS (36º 62′ 46″ North, 43º 44′ 74″ East).

Barring some extraordinary discovery of archaeology, or some stunning discovery of ancient documents that have been lost for centuries, we will never know for certain the precise location of the Battle of Gaugamela. But this essay, I claim, offers the best educated guess of the true location of that storied and fateful field.

1 Aurel Stein, “Notes on Alexander’s Crossing of the Tigris and the Battle of Arbela [the alternate name of the Battle of Gaugamela],” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 100, No. 4 (Oct., 1942), pp. 155-164.

2 E. W. Marsden, The Campaign of Gaugamela, (Aylesbury, Bucks, England: Hazell Watson and Viney, Ltd., 1964), p. 21.

3 Arthur Banks, A World Atlas Military History Volume One—to 1500 (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1973), p. 39.

4 Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander, trans. Aubrey de Selincourt, revised, with a new introduction and notes by J. R. Hamilton (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993), p. 161; and Marsden, p. 21.

5 Arrian, pp. 158-159; and Marsden, pp. 11-21 and folding map inside the back cover.

11/24/2015 – Corrected latitudes and longitudes of locations.
11/25/2015 – Corrected latitudes and longitudes of locations.